What Is Feminist Criticism?

Marlene Garcia

Feminist criticism defines a literary theory showing how women were portrayed as less valuable than men in literature throughout history. Usually called feminist literary criticism, it studies how early writings condoned the oppression of women because men dominated society. It also explores how women writers were taken less seriously than male authors from a historical perspective.

Feminist literary criticism studies how early writings condoned the oppression of women because men dominated society.
Feminist literary criticism studies how early writings condoned the oppression of women because men dominated society.

Going back hundreds of years, women were shown in literature as imperfect when compared to men, according to feminist criticism. Female stereotypes abound in early literary works, and feminist criticism scholars contend these views kept women from reaching equality socially, politically, and economically. In some instances, women were simply viewed as being different from men but not recognized for any contributions to society.

Feminist criticism gender studies typically divide history into three distinct periods. The first era looks at literature from the 1700s through the early 1900s. This is considered the first time women began examining female characters in literature, which were created from a male viewpoint. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, is studied for its impact on feminist criticism and the obstacles female writers overcame to express their views.

At that time, most women were confined to a house, which became a re-occurring theme in books by female authors of the era. Over time, these writers began developing strong female characters that went against society’s expectations. These early heroines sought independence and followed a quest for knowledge, with literature showing women bucking the system and using their intellect to make personal decisions.

The second wave of feminist criticism arose between the 1960s and late 1970s. The women’s rights movement drew attention to political, economic, and social injustices to the female sex. This era coincided with the civil rights movement that demanded equality for people of color.

During the 1990s, scholars studying feminist criticism actively wrote about the contributions of women to society. Literature included studies of text throughout history that illustrated the debasement of women, especially in works considered classics. The way women were featured in historical works influenced female characters in modern text internationally during this time.

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Discussion Comments


I am a firm believer in the words "The pen is mightier than the sword." Those who control what we read shape history as much as the people who live the events they write about. I am always appalled when I think of some of the history books used in my schools when I was a kid.

I think the portrayal of the American Indian, blacks and women in writing and motion pictures has done a major disservice to us all. With time, the portrayal of women in literature has changed for the better, and I think these changes account for many of the changes we have seen in terms of female equality in the workforce, in government and in the home.


I don't know how much the way women are depicted in literature has to do with the real world. I guess there are good points on both sides of the debate and I have heard enough literary criticism to know that both sides are not likely to come to a common ground of agreement.

However, I do know how important it was for me to be able to go to the library when I was a young girl and check out books about young girls who were like me physically, but who had these great adventures and experiences. There was something encouraging in those books. After all, if those characters could do great things then why couldn't I do great things with my life, too?


If you're writing about the world around you, and you are not writing fantasy then your characters are going to reflect what you see around you. If this is not what happens then that probably says more about your writing ability than anything else. Whether you believe the roles woman have played throughout history are good or bad, you should recognize that women have been more submissive and been have been more dominant throughout history.

For this reason, it is natural that writers would portray men and women accordingly in their works. Literature didn't create the rules and beliefs of our societies. The writings simply reflected the images that were already there, even feminist critics should recognize this.

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